Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Artifact: ‘My grandfather belonged to Thomas Jefferson.’

Growing up in D.C., I never heard of “Juneteenth.” But I will jump on any pretext to stream some cool audio, so... prepare to hear the words of Fountain Hughes, a former slave. (Actually, I’m not streaming this one; the Library of Congress is.)

Fountain Hughes was interviewed on June 11, 1949, by Hermond Norwood, an engineer with the Library of Congress. Hughes said he was 101 years old.

Strangely, one of the first things Mr. Hughes says, by way of introducing himself to posterity, is: “My grandfather belonged to Thomas Jefferson.” As if, after 100 years of living, that’s what he’s most proud of – that his grandfather had been the slave of a great and famous white man.

In a fucked-up way, I guess that is something to be proud of. We can assume that Thomas Jefferson would only own the best.

In a more obvious way, it’s a psychological tragedy. And yet that’s the value to us of hearing Fountain Hughes (or “Uncle Fountain,” as Norwood calls him in the condescending politeness of a bygone era) speak in his own voice about slavery times.

“Colored people that’s free ought to be awful thankful,” Mr. Hughes says about 19 minutes into the recording. “And some of them is sorry they are free now. Some of them now would rather be slaves.”

“Which would you rather be, Uncle Fountain?” asks Norwood, adding a laugh.

“Me? Which I’d rather be?... If I thought, had any idea, that I’d ever be a slave again,” Fountain Hughes says, “I’d take a gun and just end it all right away. Because you’re nothing but a dog.”

Mr. Hughes emerges instantly on this recording as a vivid, appealing character. He had the gift of gab, and then some. (He spends the first six minutes going on and on about the evils of buying on credit before the interviewer can get a word in edgewise.)

When it comes to his boyhood memories of slavery in Virginia, the small details resonate. “I told a woman the other day, I said, ‘I never had no shoes till I was 13 years old.’ She say, ‘What, you bruise your feet all up? Stump your toes?’ I said, ‘Yes, many times I’ve stumped my toes, and blood run out ’em. That didn’t make ’em buy me no shoes.’ ”

Click here to listen to an mp3 file of this living, breathing artifact of American history, courtesy of the “American Memory” project of the Library of Congress. (It’s about 29 minutes long.)


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Undercover Black Man said...

^ I'll check it out. Thanks for the comment.

Don's Drums said...

David, I don't know if you heard, but this Juneteenth in Texas there was an attack by a mob of attendees, resulting in the death of an Hispanic man. Very sad.

Undercover Black Man said...

Tell me more, Don. Linkage, please?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting the Fountain Hughes recording. (I thought it was one of those Federal Writers' Project interviews, but those were conducted in the late 30s. And the couple I tried to listen to, were of poor quality.) I honestly didn't feel that Mr. Hughes was taking pride in his Thomas Jefferson connection, but just emphasizing its historical significance. Had his grandfather been owned by a free black slave master, perhaps he'd have mentioned it too. I mean, that too has its own historical implications about that very peculiar institution.

Anyway, what was up with the interviewer referring to Mr. Hughes as "Uncle?" Did he mean it in the perjorative, or was he trying to be endearing?

Undercover Black Man said...

Anon, thanks for posting.

The uncle thing -- like "Uncle Ben" and "Uncle Tom" -- was simply the polite way, in olden times, of addressing a black man whom you didn't consider enough of a man to call "Mister."

Even though the interviewer meant it affectionately, I don't see why he couldn't have addressed him as "Mr. Hughes." If anybody earned it, I think Fountain Hughes did.

And I beg to differ with you concerning the line "My grandfather belonged to Thomas Jefferson." I think it was absolutely a way of associating himself with the greatness and fame of Jefferson in the way that only an ex-slave could.

A white guy would say, like, "My grandfather was Thomas Jefferson's cousin," but with the same intent... to impress the listener.

And again I say, it is impressive, in a weird and discomfiting way.

Anonymous said...

I see your point UBM. I don't know...I'm still trying to give Mr. Fountain the benefit of the doubt. I mean, if a descendant of Hitler's was to say: "Adolf Hitler' was my cousin" would anyone say he was trying to impress the listener? Perhaps if he were a skin-head, or someone who believed in Hitler's ideology, yeah, maybe he'd be proud.

(Not to compare the holocaust with slavery, although both were vile, I'm just thinking that both Jefferson and Hitler influenced history. And since people love being connected to famous/influential people I just wonder if someone would be proud to claim that Nazi, is all.)

And I think this quote speaks volumes:

“Me? Which I’d rather be?... If I thought, had any idea, that I’d ever be a slave again,” Fountain Hughes says, “I’d take a gun and just end it all right away. Because you’re nothing but a dog.”

If he'd have said: "If I thought I'd be Thomas Jefferson's slave, then, I wouldn't mind!" Then I'd think: "Now there's an ex-slave proud of his Jefferson roots!"

I don't know, just listening to the recording, hearing him talk about slavery, about not wearing shoes until he was thirteen, having to wear dresses instead of pants; hearing him talk about how the slaves were "turned out" after emancipation.... But, if there's any consolation, at least "My grandfather belonged to Thomas Jefferson." *sigh* I just don't feel he mentions Jefferson out of pride.

Again, I see it for its historical significance. It's a fact that's stated early in the interview and I don't recall Mr. Fountain repeating it throughout. How many other ex-slaves living at the time could say the same thing? It attests to the fact that the "founding fathers" were flawed. Now, his words are documented for posterity.

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